Red Clydeside

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Red Clydeside is the era of political radicalism that characterised the city of Glasgow in Scotland, and urban areas around the city on the banks of the River Clyde such as Clydebank, Greenock and Paisley. The history of Red Clydeside is a significant part of the history of the labour movement in Britain as a whole, and in Scotland in particular.

This period in Clydeside's history lasted from the 1910s until roughly the early 1930s, although its legacy is still visible today. Popular newspapers of the time used the term "Red Clydeside" to refer to the political militancy of the time. An amalgamation of charismatic individuals, organized movements and socio-political forces led to the enduring notion of Red Clydeside. This period has its roots directly in working class opposition to the United Kingdom's participation in World War I, although the area had a long history of political radicalism going back to its involvement in the Friends of the People society and the "Radical War" of 1820.

1911 strike at Singer[edit]

The 11,000 workers at the largest factory of Singer sewing machines factory, in Clydebank, went on strike in March–April 1911, ceasing to work in solidarity of 12 female colleagues protesting against work process reorganisation. This reorganisation involved an increase in workload and a decrease in wages.[1] Following the end of the strike, Singer fired 400 workers, including all strike leaders and purported members of the IWGB, among them Arthur McManus, who later went on to become the first chairman of the CPGB between 1920 and 1922.[2]

Labour unrest, in particular by women and unskilled labour, greatly increased between 1910-1914 in Clydeside, with four times more days on strike than between 1900 and 1910. During these four years preceding World War I, membership of those affiliated to the Scottish Trades Union Congress rose from 129,000 in 1909 to 230,000 in 1914.[2]

Anti-war activism[edit]

To mobilise the workers of Clydeside against World War I, the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC) was formed, with Willie Gallacher as its head and David Kirkwood its treasurer. The CWC led the campaign against the Liberal government of David Lloyd George and their Munitions Act, which forbade engineers from leaving the company they were employed in. The CWC met with government leaders, but no agreement could be reached and consequently both Gallacher and Kirkwood were arrested under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act and jailed for their activities.

Anti-war activity also took place outside the workplace and on the streets in general. The Marxist John Maclean and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) member James Maxton were both jailed for their anti-war propagandizing.

Rent strikes[edit]

Of all the problems in early 20th-century Glasgow, housing was perhaps the most prominent. The housing problem had many guises: the condition of buildings was often poor, overcrowding was rampant, and sanitation was non-existent. And to make matters worse, the housing was frequently situated near rank-smelling, dirty and noisy industries. In this context, the drastic rent increases of 1915 proved massively unpopular.

With many men fighting at the front, the women left behind were seen as vulnerable by landlords, and massive rent increases became the norm. Existing tenants who could no longer afford the rent were evicted, causing widespread alarm among the (now) mainly female populace. In Govan, an area of Glasgow where shipbuilding was the main occupation, the women organised an effective opposition to the rent increases, although men such as John Wheatley also played a role. The main figure in the movement was Mary Barbour, and the protesters soon became known as "Mrs. Barbour's Army". Barbour went on after the war to become the first female councillor in Glasgow, and a lifelong campaigner for better living conditions.

The usual method of preventing eviction was to block the entrance to the tenement. Photographs of the time show hundreds of people participating. If the sheriff officers managed to get as far as the entrance, another tactic was to humiliate them - pulling down their trousers was a commonly used method.

The mood of the placards carried by the protesters was that the landlords were unpatriotic. A common message was that while the men were fighting on the front line the landlords were in league with the enemy e.g. "While my father is a prisoner in Germany the landlord is attacking us at home".

The strikes soon spread and became such an overwhelming success, moving out from Glasgow and on to other cities throughout the UK, that the government, on 27 November 1915, introduced legislation to restrict rents to the pre-war level.

The 40 Hour Strike[edit]

The activities of the left continued after the end of the war. The campaign for a 40-hour week and improved conditions for the workers took hold of organised labour. On January 31, 1919, a massive rally organised by the trade unions took place on George Square in the centre of Glasgow. It has been estimated that as many as 90,000 were present, and the Red Flag was raised in the centre of the crowd. The gathering descended into what is generally considered to have been a police riot, with the Riot Act being read, and attacks made on the strike leaders as they exited the City Chambers.

Medium Mark C tanks and soldiers deployed to the city (31 January 1919)

The Coalition government panicked, fearing a possible threat to order or even a Bolshevik-style insurrection. It was only 14 months since the Russian Revolution, and the German Revolution was in progress in January 1919. Troops based in the city's Maryhill barracks were locked inside their post, with troops and tanks from elsewhere in the country sent into the city to control unrest and extinguish any revolution that should break out. No Glaswegian troops were deployed, and few veterans, with the government fearing that fellow Glaswegians might sympathise with the strikers if a revolutionary situation developed in Glasgow. Young, mostly untried, troops were transported from camps and barracks around the country and stationed on the streets of Glasgow specifically to combat this possible scenario.

A commonly maintained claim that the troops were English is not backed up by press reports or first-hand accounts of the period, which stress the youth and inexperience of the soldiers, rather than any geographical origins.

A revolutionary moment?[edit]

There remains a lively debate on the left, over whether the Red Clydeside movement constituted a revolutionary opportunity for the working class, though on the face of it, it would appear that the revolutionary potential of the Clydeside working class has been exaggerated. Firstly, excepting Maclean, none of the labour leaders developed a class analysis of the war, nor did they seriously consider threatening the power and authority of the state. Furthermore, it was the behaviour of those conducting the war, not the war itself that provoked opposition within the labour movement. The Independent Labour Party's May Day Manifesto of 1918 makes this very clear in calling for A Living Wage for all and Justice for our Soldiers and their Dependants. Moreover, the massive demand for fighting men meant that few Glaswegian families escaped personal loss of some kind. To undermine the war effort was to risk alienating the working class, which many labour leaders were unwilling to do-–besides Maxton, Gallacher and Maclean.

William Gallacher, who would later become a Communist MP claimed that whilst the leaders of the rally were not seeking revolution, in hindsight they should have been. He claimed that they should have marched to the Maryhill barracks and tried to persuade the troops stationed there to come out on the protesters' side.

The trade union leaders who had organized the meeting were arrested. Most were acquitted, although both Gallacher and Manny Shinwell were put in jail for their activities that day, Shinwell also being charged with inflammatory speech the week before on James Watt Street in the city's docks, in an episode that later erupted into a race riot.



"Reds" in Parliament[edit]

The aura of Red Clydeside grew as the organized left replaced the Liberal Party as the party of the working class. This manifested itself at the 1922 General Election, when several of the Red Clydesiders were elected to serve in the House of Commons (most of them Independent Labour Party members). They included Maxton, Wheatley, Shinwell, Kirkwood, Neil Maclean and George Buchanan.

According to the Labour Party, the Red Clydesiders were viewed as being left-wing. Many of them, most notably Maxton and Wheatley, were great critics of the first and second British Labour governments, elected in 1924 and 1929 respectively.

The Red Clydeside era still impacts upon the politics of the area today. Even since then, Glasgow has been known for political and industrial militancy. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work In of 1971, led by the then communist Jimmy Reid is an example. Today the Labour Party holds every seat in the area in the House of Commons and has long been the dominant political force in the area.

This period in Glasgow’s colourful past remains a significant landmark for those on the left in Scotland. The legend of the Red Clydesiders can still be politically motivating. At the 1989 Glasgow Central by-election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate Alex Neil called himself and the then SNP MP for Govan, Jim Sillars, the "new Clydesiders".

Popular culture[edit]

The album Red Clydeside by Alistair Hulett contains nine songs about the movement, particularly the anti-war protests and the rent strike. The Red Clydeside movement was also featured in John McGrath's play "Little Red Hen", performed by 7:84 Scotland.

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Duncan, Robert and McIvor, Arthur, eds. Militant Workers: Labour and class conflict on the Clyde 1900-1950 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1992), essays by experts
  • Jenkinson, Jacqueline. "Black Sailors on Red Clydeside: rioting, reactionary trade unionism and conflicting notions of ‘Britishness’ following the First World War," Twentieth Century British History (2008) 19#1 pp 29-60.
  • MacLean, Ian. The legend of Red Clydeside (Edinburgh: J.Donald, 1983)
  • Melling, Joseph. "Whatever Happened to Red Clydeside?'" International Review of Social History (1990) 35#1 pp 3-32.

External links[edit]